Books for Today – May 2021

My first book of the month is Dear England: Finding Hope, Taking Heart and Changing the World (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2021. 184pp: £12.99) by Stephen Cottrell. In summary, the relatively new Archbishop of York presents a wonderful vision of the Christian faith, which in turn makes this a wonderful book for people to read who have yet to follow Jesus. It is very much a personal apologia of faith. Indeed, as Cottrell states: “I’m writing this because I want to explain to you why I am a Christian and why I’m trying to follow the Christian way”. The book’s strength is that it is written with a light touch for people who do not believe and do not go to church. To quote Cottrell again: “I’m trying to convert you, but I’m going to do it by asking you to look at your own experience and the claims of the Christian faith in a fresh light. And if you end up not converted, I won’t think I’ve failed. This is your decision, and no one can make it for you. And since… God isn’t going to force your hand, I won’t try to either. But I do hope you enjoy the ride.” To my initial surprise, Stephen Cottrell writes not only about the difference that following Jesus makes to our personal lives, but also to the way we care for others in the community. This inevitably leads into issues which some would regard as political, although at no stage does Cottrell engage in party politics. On reflection, for many younger people, this may well be a great strength. Indeed, I was so impressed that I bought copies to give to four of my grandchildren!

My second book of the month is A Burning In my Bones (Authentic, Milton Keynes 2021. 368pp: £19.99), the authorized biography of Eugene Peterson by Winn Collier. The first thing I noticed is that this is not an exercise in hagiography – it is an honest account of a man who sought to be a ‘saint’, but sometimes failed! Secondly, although Eugene Peterson led a very different life from me, I found his experience resonated with me time and again. For instance, the very title of the book, A Burning in my Bones, taken from Jer 20.9. is a verse which was at the heart of my call to ministry. Similarly, there was a stage when I – like many other ministers – experienced ‘the badlands’, but like Eugene Peterson was ultimately given strength to ‘stay put’. Again, like many a minister, there were times when I felt overwhelmed by running a church, rather than fulfilling the role that God called me to be. Although Peterson was very much a Gospel-centred man, he struggled with American Evangelicalism. Sadly toward the end of his life a massive controversy arose over his unwillingness to condemn Christians in same-sex relationships. Peterson affirmed a historic understanding of marriage while insisting that “a faithful reading of Scripture indicates that Jesus is much more interested in those who are hurting than he is on those who think they have Scripture on their side”. It is a painful story, and all the more so since it combined with the onset of dementia. Finally, I was moved by the account of how as his father died, his son Eric placed his hand on his father’s head and said, “Together, we are witnesses to this glad fact: that in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through Christ Jesus our Lord, I declare that the baptism of Eugen Hoiland (sic) Peterson is now complete”. This is an interesting and challenging biography – I found it a fascinating read.

Other books to make us think:

Do Muslims and Christians Worship the same God? (IVP, London 2021. 188pp: £9.99) by Andy Bannister addresses a key question in Christian apologetics. According to Pope Francis, “We Christians and Muslims believe in God, the Creator and the Merciful, who created people to live like brothers and sisters, respecting each other in their diversity, and helping one another in their needs”. Bannister strongly disagrees: “Allah and Yahweh, as described by the Qur’an and the Bible, are utterly, irreconcilably different”. Although I am not an Islamic specialist, I found it an abrasive rather than attractive read, with no hint of a willingness to engage in dialogue.

Although I do not normally review books for young children, I was tempted by Goodnight World (SPCK, London £6.99 – but £5.99 from SPCK) a large format bedtime book, beautifully illustrated by Patrick Corrigan, and written by Rebecca Parkinson, in which the readers say goodnight to a host of animals. I read a snippet by FaceTime to my two-year-old granddaughter in Cairo and it gave her great pleasure!

Autobiographies by ministers are rare and so I read with interest A Roomful of Elephants: My First Eighty Years in the Church (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2021. 234pp: no price given) by Patrick Forbes, the founder of Holy Fools UK. After a curacy in Yeovil, he moved to the (then) new estate of Thamesmead, where he became team vicar; later he became the first communications officer for the St Albans Diocese along with looking two small parish churches; then four years as information officer in the communications unit at Church House followed by a brief stint in communications for the Mission to Seafarers before ill-health caused him to take early ‘retirement’ after 32 years in stipendiary ministry. Although written with a light and entertaining touch, it is clear that the author was not always best served by the Anglican ‘support system’. As a result the final chapter entitled ‘A gathering of elephants’ is a passionate critique of the Church of England, which in his view is not “fit for purpose”. In the light of the current shortage of ministers and of the accompanying overload and stress which many clergy suffer (himself included), he pleads for a “revolution: in which not only “every member ministry” is taken seriously, but also for an end to “denominational nonsense”: “Christian unity matters not just because Jesus prayed for it but because divisions among people of faith eat away at what can be done, willed and achieved”. He goes on, ¨If the Church worked with other denominations, disposed of many duplicated buildings, who knows how much wealth might be available for the real work of the Church?” In addition he raises other issues such as “what is the point and purpose of bishops?” and “should pensions for clergy be the same whether one retired as an archdeacon or bishop of as a faithful priest?” Before these questions are dismissed, we need to remember that in medieval times a fool was often the wisest man in the King’s court!

Messy Discipleship: Messy Church perspectives on growing faith (BRF, Abingdon 2021. 123pp: £7.99) by Lucy Moore, the founder of Messy Church, is divided into two main parts: (1) How Messy Churches are enabling discipleship; and (2) Discipleship through the lens of Messy Church values (Christ-centred, all-age, creativity, hospitality, and celebration). Messy Church is the single most common type of fresh expression of church, reported at 32.5% – that is, over six times the average 5% type reported. According to Lucy Moore in her introduction there are still two issues which concern Messy Church practitioners: firstly, “the biblical principle of being an all-age church is valued by very few churches”; and secondly, Messy Church is often done ‘to get people to come to proper church on a Sunday morning at 10.30 in a pew”. In spite of the relative success of Messy Church, Lucy Moore acknowledges that there is no “quick-fix, flick-the-switch answer to making disciples”. Messy Church is “a movement” and is “about being small, light of foot and decentralised”. I confess that at my stage in life I am not attracted to Messy Church: however, I recognise the vital need to reach out to reach out to parents in their children at a time when in many traditional churches there are fewer and fewer young families attending.

Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict (OUP, Oxford 2021. 441pp: £25 hardback) by Christiane Tietz, Professor of Systematic Theology at Zurich, is a carefully researched albeit very readable account of the life of a man who is often termed the greatest theologian of the 20th century. Unlike other biographies of Barth, this biographer had access to a numerous newly-available documents – and in particular to papers dealing with his long-term three-way relationship with his wife Nelly and his ‘mistress’ Charlotte von Kirschbaum who lived with the Karl and Nelly Barth for almost 40 years. As the book makes clear both women suffered deeply from this relationship – both in their own way were victims of Barth’s inability to resolve the situation. Perhaps fittingly, the book ends with Hans Küng’s account about a conversation he had with Barth in which Barth spoke of what he hoped for after death: “When the day arrives on which I must appear before my Lord, then I will not come with my works, with my Dogmatics volumes on my back in the ‘pannier’. All the angels would laugh at that. Then I will also not say: I always meant well, I had the right belief. No, then I will only say one thing: Lord, receive me, a poor sinner, with mercy!”

Resources

Comfortable Words: A Call to restoration – Reflections on Isaiah 40-55 (BRF, Abingdon. 92pp: £7.99) by Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford, contains nine attractive studies intended for churches emerging from lockdown. My one regret is that at the end of each study there is not a list of questions to consider. Nonetheless, I will be using this book with the fellowship group I lead.

Booklets from Grove of Cambridge, all 28pp and cost £3.95, are always good value for money. Recently I came across three interesting past booklets which I had not seen. All Souls’ Services of Remembrance: our mission to the bereaved (Worship 223, 2015) by John Leach looked at the growing practice among Evangelical Anglicans in particular to hold remembrance services where the focus is not so much upon the departed (that happens at the funeral) but on those still living with the loss of a loved one – my quibble is the use of the term ‘All Souls’ services, since All Souls traditionally has Roman Catholic associations with the church penitent in purgatory, whereas All Saints Day is when we rejoice in the church triumphant in heaven. Another helpful tool is How to Plan your own Funeral Service (Worship 2015) by Ian Tarrant, which has been written not just for Christians but also for non-Christians. In addition I enjoyed Preaching at Funerals: How to embed the Gospel in funeral ministry (Pastoral 159: first published in 2001, but revised 2019) by Nick Watson.

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